Masks, Facial Hair and Covid-19

Our RAMS indicate when you must wear PPE masks to protect you against breathing in harmful asbestos fibres, silica and other typical construction site dust.

Just before the Covid-19 crisis hit us, the HSE launched a campaign to promote increasing awareness that the unprotected breathing in of the typical dusts found in construction sites can produce exactly the same long-term health risks as breathing in asbestos, namely Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease (COADs) and cancers.

The HSE led RPE campaign was only slowly gathering momentum, but it seems the Coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue right into the forefront of public attention presumably because the cause and effect is immediate for Covid-19, give or take a few days, whereas the harm dust and similar contaminates can cause take a lifetime to develop.

Credible articles on face mask safety and the protection they afford against Covid-19

The following articles explain and confirm why our operatives would benefit from wearing FFP3 face masks in the workplace for all the normal H&S reasons stated in our RAMS. Although wearing FFP3 masks would certainly help avoid contracting Covid-19 in the workplace, many authorities agree it is not a practical proposition for most people in normal working conditions. That said, as we issue FFP3 masks to all operatives, if there are occasions when the 2m social distancing rule cannot be met (e.g. two people coming together to lift a heavy object) who would be the greater fool? The one who didn't wear the mask when they had it to hand and contracted the virus as a result, or the one who felt foolish and embarrassed because they wore it?

If we follow the Government guideline that people should wear face coverings when using Public Transport, it would be sensible to adopt the same for all occasions when our workers cannot avoid breaking the 2m social distancing rule when on site. That is why we have issued surgical masks and face guards to staff working on site.

The HSE's HSG53 booklet explains the current RPE recommendations employers should be considering. It has a useful table on page 16 that shows the RPE that provides the best protection against the particulate and vapour hazards Marisco operatives face on a regular basis on-site. The solutions for our staff is to wear particulate and/or vapour filters with half-masks if they are clean-shaven and working for less than an hour, or positive-air face mask/hoods in they have facial hair and/or they need to work for more than one hour.

Numerous HSE publications indicate all employees who may have to wear RPE in the workplace must be regularly face fit tested. You cannot start a face fit test unless the subject is clean-shaven. To comply with regulations, a person who cannot complete a face fit test cannot work where RPE is risk assessed as being necessary unless they are issued and trained to use positive-air, full face masks or hoods. The difficulty of sterilising RPE to a standard to remove the risk of passing on Covid-19 makes it unsafe to consider sharing RPE in the workplace.

Although being freshly clean-shaven is best, this chart indicates what facial hair arrangements may avoid degrading the effectiveness of wearing a half-mask, and those that certainly will degrade performance and safety.

This (HSE article) gives the scientific evidence why facial hair degrades mask performance.

This Public Health England article recommends when medical staff should wear surgical masks and FFP3 masks. This article establishes a sensible baseline for wearing masks for the rest of us to follow in much less dangerous environments.

The legal precedent why workers must be clean shaven when wearing masks that rely upon skin-contact seals in general construction work is marginally 'grey' at present. There is certainly a legal obligation given in several HSE publications with reference to asbestos. For example, HSE L.143, Managing and Working with Asbestos, Page 56. The reference to asbestos can be extended to apply, by inference, to any kind of harmful workplace dust or infective agent that could be breathed in by an employee not wearing an effectively sealed mask.

The debate continues on whether men wearing facial hair increase the risk of passing on Covid-19 by having infected particles trapped in their beards and mustaches. Such hair is in close proximity to the mouth, nose and eyes and the virus may be more readily transferred from one to the other by people touching their faces with their hands.

In the absence of a credible scientific study to confirm one way or the other, we must revert to commonsense for the answer. If there is even a remote chance facial hair may increase the risk of transmitting Covid-19, it makes sense to go clean-shaven and protect you and your family members, who may be expected to have more intimate contact, from cross infection during these extraordinary times.

If hair does prove to harbor and spread Covid-19, it follows everyone should consider washing their hair more regularly to reduce the risk of transmission.

In Conclusion

The UK Government announced that wearing 'facial coverings' (preferably not surgical masks as these are still needed by medical staff) will become mandatory on Public Transport in England from 15 June 2020. This approach is in keeping with the views of many international authorities that the wearing of more effective masks on a regular basis is not justified as a means for reducing transmission of Covid-19. Current advice is the wearing of a face covering is sufficient to prevent transmission, although it affords no protection against infection to the wearer. The objective is to reduce the chances of the wearer passing on the virus if they are infected and don't yet realise they are a carrier because symptoms have not yet developed.

The facial hair Covid-19 debate in the medical professional has spilled over into the construction sector where the HSE have indicated they are tightening up on construction site dust safety issues.

Many workers understandably resent the implication they must choose between continuing to wear a beard or stubble and retain their jobs. On the other hand a worker who does have facial hair cannot work safely in any site where the risk assessments indicate RPE is necessary. If a worker refuses to be clean-shaven at work, and the Company wishes to retain their services, the only reasonable and practicable solution is to provide the worker with powered full face hood RPE. Covid-19 makes it unsafe to share RPE. The 3M Versaflow models allow you to easily swap over the hood element, allowing the belt-worn, motorised filter unit to be shared. Individuals will just retain their own hoods.

Positive-air, full-face masks are expensive to acquire, but their filters last for longer and relative cost over times balances out with the semi-disposable half face masks we use any way.

Marisco policy is to only allow clean-shaven operatives wearing FFP3 RPE to engage in any work that produces excessive amounts of dust. We will continue to acquire more positive-air, full face mask/hoods to allow operatives with beards and stubble to operate safely. Any operative who wears a beard or stubble without access to suitable RPE must withdraw from site when risk assessments indicate work is about to begin that could create harmful dust. They cannot return until the harmful dust has been safely removed.

Marisco Group

Head Office:
Unit J5, The Fulcrum
6 Vantage Way, Poole, BH12 4NU

Storage Unit:
Unit 5, West Howe Industrial Est
Elliott Rd, Bournemouth, BH11 8JY

Tel: 01202 474001


Useful info links regarding Covid-19:
Government site. Click here
ACAS site. Click here
HSE Covid Work Safely Guide. Click here
HSE Covid Guidance. Click here
Isolation Note. Click here

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